The great escapist

AS a secret prisoner of war in a Nazi concentration camp, Walter Steilberg's daily diet consisted of little more than watery soup made from potato peelings.

Occasionally, 'funny little bits of meat' would be found floating in his 'slops', but Walter, or Digger, as he was known during the war, was not grateful for the additional food as he had every reason to believe he was being fed human flesh. It's not surprising he lost 32kg during his time in various camps. Nor was he thankful for the clean set of sheets that were delivered once a week, as there was no bed to put them on.

Walter Steilberg, born on the North Coast, is known as Wal around Grafton where he and his wife Doris have lived for more than 20 years.

Most people also know he is a returned soldier, but few have heard the details of his service during World War Two.

Despite surviving an intense and disastrous battle for Crete in 1941, eight heroic escapes from German prisoner of war camps in Europe, then eight months of hellish torment in Terezin the Nazi concentration camp in Czechoslovakia

Wal's experience was denied by both the Australian Army and successive Australian Governments.

His story has had plenty of guts, but very little glory attached. Until now.

Sydney-based journalist Paul Rea's new book Voices From The Fortress (ABC Books) tracks the capture, escapes and experiences of a number of prisoners of war who ended up in the hellish Terezin towards the end of the war. It's a miracle these men came out alive and according to Wal, at least one of his mates came out 'a cot case'.

Another, Bob Slater, who settled in Perth after the war, suffered ill health after contracting typhus in a camp infested with body lice and fleas.

Paul Rea first heard the story of one of these soldiers in 1978 when he was contacted by an Australian living in England.

The article he wrote for the Newcastle Herald reported the Australian Government's response which stated: "We have no record of any Australians being held in any concentration camps. Therefore it didn't happen."

Mr Rea was flabbergasted by 'the bureaucratic indifference to the welfare of these men'. It was, he said 'heartless and cruel'.

Wal already knew how cruel it was and when he spotted the Newcastle Herald story, he wrote to Paul Rea saying 'if you were there, like I was, you wouldn't forget it for 100 years'.

A collaborated and determined campaign to have the Australian servicemen's experience acknowledged included about 30 or more articles written by Mr Rea, nine years of lobbying in Canberra and a powerful documentary scripted by Mr Rea, which earned him the inaugural Australian Human Rights Print Media Award.

Finally, after 40 years of denial, the Bob Hawke Government agreed to recognise these men and granted them each $10,000 compensation. In a sense, Mr Rea's job was finished, but as a result of his research and what he describes as 'squeaky gate journalism' the act of irritation in a relentless pursuit of a goal he had a mass of taped conversations with these men and now, 20 years later, he has transcribed them in order to tell their stories in print.

Although a number of returned servicemen feature here, the book is dedicated to Wal, who Rea described as 'a rare breed of guy'.

"He's got such determination. Wally is part of a small elite as far as escaping is concerned."

Back in Grafton yesterday after a trip to Sydney for the book launch, Wal looked tired, but happy to be home.

Speaking of the unspeakable is still new to him and clearly he wished his mate Bob Slater was around to see the book.

"I'll never forget one day in Terezin old Bob said 'Digger, I'm so hungry, I could eat a scabby cat'."

The book is available at ABC shops, online and selected book stores.

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